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2017 Great Falls Face: Slalom Event by Todd Henson

In a previous post I showed some of the amazing facial expressions on the athletes as they competed in the 2017 Great Falls Race, part of the Potomac River Festival, held at Great Falls on the Potomac River just outside Washington, D.C. This time around we’ll look at the slalom event, where kayakers and canoeists have to maneuver around hanging gates while moving downriver through rapids and over large falls.

The Slalom Course

Layout of the slalom course, part of the 2017 Great Falls Race.

I’ve included a photograph that shows the course of the slalom event. The pink line is the general path most folks took downriver. The red ovals are the gates. These are poles hanging from ropes strung across the river. The athletes have to maneuver around these gates in specific ways before heading further downriver, or they receive penalties. The race is scored based on how fast they make it from start to finish, along with any penalties they accumulate for missing or hitting gates.

The racers begin in the calmer water just above U-Hole. Click on the image for a better view and you might see a blue kayak up there waiting for his run. They drop into U-Hole and around the first gate before moving into S-Turn.

There are many ways to approach S-Turn. Some approach straight on from the gate hugging closely to the right side of the bank then angling into the turn. Others move more towards the left bank and turn before hitting the rapid, then rush straight through the rapids.

After S-Turn they need to turn their boat to get around the next gate, and from there quickly begin moving towards The Crack. Finally, after the large plunge from The Crack they need to recover and make it around the final gate. It’s easy to see their path on the photo, but it’s not nearly so easy for them to actually do it, as you’ll see in some of the images below.

Trouble Along the Way

This isn’t an easy race and sometimes racers run into trouble along the way.

Tad Dennis (bib 12) hit the middle gate after making it past S-Turn. He was canoeing instead of kayaking for this race. Notice he uses a single-sided paddle versus the double-sided paddle used by the kayakers.

Tad Dennis hits the middle slalom gate.

Here is a sequence of images showing a rough spot in the race for Jordan Poffenberger (bib 10). He was moving through S-Turn when the water flipped his kayak. But he recovered quickly and continued the race. This entire sequence covers no more than 4 seconds. This is fast moving water.

Running the Course

Here is a short sequence of images showing Geoff Calhoun (bib 1) beginning his slalom run by dropping over U-Hole, around the first gate, then angling towards S-Turn. Notice all the people on the rocks along the river, some tethered to the rocks, watching and ready to provide or call in assistance if there are any major problems.

Geoff Calhoun dropping into U-Hole during the slalom event.

Geoff Calhoun eyeing the slalom gate after dropping through U-Hole.

Geoff Calhoun moves around the first gate during the slalom event.

After the first gate Geoff Calhoun moves into S-Turn during the slalom event.

And now a sequence showing Jason Beakes (bib 5) going through S-Turn and angling towards the 2nd gate. His eyes lock on the gate just as soon as he surfaces from S-Turn. He still has to maneuver out of the flow from S-Turn and head towards the gate, but he is immediately focused on that gate.

Jason Beakes dropping into S-Turn during the slalom event.

During the slalom event Jason Beakes almost disappears behind the wild water in S-Turn. The 2nd slalom gate can be seen at the bottom.

Being propelled out of S-Turn, Jason Beakes' eyes lock onto the next slalom gate.

Before Jason Beakes can reach the next slalom gate he needs to maneuver himself out of the strong current from S-Turn.

After moving past the middle gate Jason heads straight for and over The Crack. He has a very deliberate and controlled descent, never losing control of his kayak. And even though he comes over The Crack at an angle, when he touches down he immediately angles himself around the final gate. Jason Beakes had the fastest run through the slalom and finished it with no penalties.

Jason Beakes enters The Crack during the slalom event.

There's not much room to maneuver in The Crack as Jason Beakes runs the slalom event.

Jason Beakes, exiting the tight confines of The Crack.

I love this image of Jason Beakes holding his paddle ready as he flies over The Crack.

Approaching the bottom at an angle, Jason Beakes prepares himself for the final slalom gate.

Jason Beakes almost disappears when he hits the bottom of The Crack. The slalom gate is now in view to the right.

Jason Beakes moves around the final slalom gate, finishing with the fastest time in this leg of the race.

Favorite Image

My favorite image of the slalom event was Tyler Uthus flying past the final gate after having flown over The Crack.

Tyler Uthus flying past the final slalom gate.



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2017 Great Falls Race: Facial Expressions by Todd Henson

You can watch and capture some great facial expressions at whitewater sports events.

I was fortunate to watch the 2017 Great Falls Race, part of the Potomac River Festival, where kayakers and canoeists arrive from all over to run the rapids of Great Falls on the Potomac River. The Potomac separates Virginia from Maryland and flows by Washington, D.C. not too far south of Great Falls.

The Great Falls portion of the Potomac has multiple Class V+ rapids that can be run along 3 major lines: the Virginia Lines, the Center Lines, and the Maryland Lines. They choose which line to race based on the water level of the river. For the 2017 Great Falls Race they ran the Virginia lines. This was my first time watching them run this set of rapids, and it was absolutely fantastic!

One of the things I really enjoy when photographing whitewater sports is capturing amazing facial expressions on the athletes. You can see such a range of emotions and expressions as they navigate some of the very challenging rapids. So the photographs I chose for this post exhibit some of that range of expression.

The Course

The different lines and some of the falls at Great Falls on the Potomac River, just outside Washington, D.C. Click the image for a larger view.

To set the stage, here is a photograph of Great Falls taken from the first observation platform on the Virginia side in Great Falls National Park. You can see the 3 lines, with the Virginia lines on the left side, the Maryland lines on the right, and of course, the Center lines in the center.

For 2017 they ran the Virginia Line. The overall event consisted of 2 race types. The first was a slalom that started through U-Hole, down S-Turn, then over The Crack to the finish line. You can’t really see the hanging slalom markers too clearly in this wide angle photo, but they ran rope across the river and hung poles to mark the slalom gates.

The second event is the Classic downriver race, which is all about speed. This race had a similar course to the slalom but they ran over The Spout instead of The Crack. The Crack takes more time to navigate because it’s so narrow, but they could really fly over The Spout.

Take a quick look at the rock between the Virginia and Center lines. You’ll see a couple kayaks laying on the rocks, and further up some people and more kayaks. This is what the athletes have to climb, with their boat, before they can make their next run. This is not just about going downriver in a kayak or canoe, it’s about climbing out of the boat, hauling it onto your back, and carefully climbing these rocks, hiking back upriver to above U-Hole, so they can run the next part of the event or just make a run for fun. They burn some serious calories out there.

Now on to the athletes and their awesome expressions. For each athlete there’s both the full-size image and a heavily cropped image where I zoom in to better show the expression. Click on any image for a larger view.

These athletes are incredible!


Jules Krinsky (Bib 42)

Jules Krinsky Kayaking The Fingers at Great Falls

Before the competition even began Jules Krinsky ran the Center Lines. This image shows him dropping over one of The Fingers. The observation platform where I was viewing does not have completely unobscured views of the Center Lines, but I still liked this framed view.

Closeup of Jules Krinsky Kayaking The Fingers at Great Falls


Tad Dennis (Bib 12)

Tad Dennis Running The Crack at Great Falls

Here is Tad Dennis running his canoe over The Crack during the slalom event. Notice he uses a single-bladed paddle for the canoe, whereas kayakers use a double-bladed paddle.

Closeup of Tad Dennis Running The Crack at Great Falls


Taylor Pittman (Bib 23)

Taylor Pittman Kayaking The Crack at Great Falls

Taylor Pittman has a great expression here as he maneuvers his kayak over The Crack during the slalom event.

Closeup of Taylor Pittman Kayaking The Crack at Great Falls


Eric Orenstein (Bib 32)

Eric Orenstein Kayaks Towards The Crack at Great Falls

Look at the focus Eric Orenstein has on the opening of The Crack during the slalom event. 

Closeup of Eric Orenstein as he Kayaks Towards The Crack at Great Falls


Ian Wingert (Bib 6)

Ian Wingert Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

Ian Wingert works hard controlling his descent over The Spout during the Classic run of the Great Falls Race.

Closeup of Ian Wingert Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls


Scott Parsons (Bib 29)

Scott Parsons Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

Scott Parsons has a great expression as he works his way into the wild water of The Spout during the Classic run.

Closeup of Scott Parsons Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls


Jake Trotter (Bib 34)

Jake Trotter Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

Jake Trotter raises his paddle as he goes over The Spout during the Classic run. Notice the different angles everyone takes, some leaning more one way, some the other way.

Closeup of Jake Trotter Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls


Rhys Jensen-Jones (Bib 36)

Rhys Jensen-Jones Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

I love this image of Rhys Jensen-Jones flying over The Spout during the Classic run. This photo does a good job showing the size difference between the short and long kayaks.

Closeup of Rhys Jensen-Jones Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls


Alex Markoff (Bib 41)

Alex Markoff Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

I love the water kicked up by Alex Markoff as he moves over The Spout during the Classic run, his kayak almost completely below the surface of the water.

Closeup of Alex Markoff Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls


Pat Keller (Bib 3)

Pat Keller Enters the S-Turn at Great Falls

Here’s a great expression from Pat Keller as he fights his way into the S-Turn during the Classic run.

Pat Keller Enters the S-Turn at Great Falls


Collin Swan (Bib 16)

Collin Swan Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls

And here we see Collin Swan out of his bib after the race has ended. He’s flying over The Spout, getting in one more run before he leaves the river. Never stop photographing just because the official event has ended. These folks love running these falls so they will often go over them again before leaving.

Collin Swan Kayaking The Spout at Great Falls



The resources below contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. This is at no extra cost to you.